Song of Simeon/Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32); Genesis 26:26-30; 2 Samuel (Kingdoms) 20:41-42; Isaiah 54:10; Nehemiah 8:3.
“Lord, now let your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
which you have prepared before the face of all peoples—
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for the glory of thy people Israel.”
So spoke the elder Simeon, when he received the infant God-Man in his arms, and blessed God for the experience. In response to his solemn words, Mary and Joseph marveled. Because we hear these words in the final canticle so often—towards the close of every Vespers, for example— “wonder” or “marveling” is perhaps not our natural response. It is not simply that Joseph and Mary are surprised that this elderly priest knows so much about their infant son. No, it is Simeon’s very prophecy that is so marvelous, and it marks a marvelous event!
Luke’s gospel tells us that it had been “revealed to [the elder] by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” God had made a promise to him, and now it is fulfilled. The business that Simeon and the LORD God share is completed, with GOD revealing the Messiah to Simeon, and Simeon speaking words of prophecy to the Theotokos: now Simeon knows that he can depart in peace from this world. In this release, Simeon stands for all the faithful who had believed the promises of God throughout the extended time of the old covenant—those who had hoped for the new time when God would make good on what He had told them would happen. When we consider the Old Testament stories, we see that the very action of making and ratifying a covenant or an oath is frequently concluded by the agreeing parties “departing in peace.” We see this rhythm in the story of Isaac, who hears yet again the promises that God first gave to Abraham. Isaac has been dwelling in the land of the Philistines for some time, where he is temporarily blessed by God, despite various hardships and the enmity of the people there. Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, who at first has had a bit of a rough patch with Isaac, eventually notices this blessing, and comes to find Isaac, looking to make a covenant with him because he is so obviously favored by God. Here is the conclusion of this episode:
When Abimelech went to [Isaac]… with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army… Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” They said, “We see plainly that the LORD has been with you. So we said, let there be a sworn pact between us, between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the LORD.” So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths. And Isaac sent them on their way, and they departed from him in peace (Gen 26:26-31).
Similarly, in 2 Sam/2 Kingdoms 20:41-42, we find the concept of departing in peace, during the great drama concerning King Saul and the future King David, when Jonathan saves David from his father’s jealousy and madness. You will remember David and Jonathan’s great friendship, and perhaps this story when he goes out to the countryside to warn David, who has been hiding, about Saul’s murderous intent:
David rose from [hiding] and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times [before Jonathan] … And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most. Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, because we have sworn both of us in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever.’ ” And he rose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city.
Again, in Isaiah 54:10 we hear about the covenant of peace, and about how even if departing becomes necessary, God’s peace will remain with His people:
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the LORD, who has compassion on you.
So, oaths, covenants, and departing in peace go together. The departure, when it is necessary, is accompanied by the assurance that the promises will be kept. On the human level, two covenanted people have within each of them and between them the peace that comes from forging a deep agreement. But when God makes an oath, as He did to Abraham, Isaac, to the prophet Isaiah, and to the elder Simeon, that peace is truly remarkable. Simeon comes to know not just through hope, but through the most concrete evidence that God keeps His word: he holds the very embodiment of salvation, the baby Jesus, in his arms. Moreover, God’s agreement is not only between the Holy Spirit and Simeon, but it involves the Theotokos, the guardian Joseph, the prophetess Anna, and all those who will receive the God-Man through their word and the word of others. We are reminded of the troparion for the Feast of the Presentation: “Christ, the coal of fire, whom holy Isaiah foresaw, now rests in the arms of the God-bearer Mary as in a pair of tongs, and He is given to the elder.” This promise of God, this “salvation” embodied, is quite literally handed over to the elder Simeon, and now to us! Jesus the Christ comes to us by human as well as divine agency, born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, experienced within as the Holy Spirit quickens us, and as we partake of the sacraments. Watching how Simeon blesses God, we learn to give thanks, both for the gift of God, and for those who have, like Simeon and our holy fathers (and mothers), borne or carried Him to us. He meets with us, as we are introduced to Him by these others, and He enlightens our darkness.
The ancient theologian Origen reminds us that the actual Greek word used here for Simeon’s “departure” is a very rich one that may be translated as “release.” He tells us:
Simeon knew that no one could release a man from the prison of the body with hope of life to come, except the anointed One whom he enfolded in his arms. Hence he also says to him, “Now you dismiss your servant, Lord, in peace. For, as long as I did not hold Christ, as long as my arms did not enfold him, I was imprisoned and unable to escape from my bonds.” This is true not only of Simeon but of the whole human race. Anyone who departs from this world, anyone who is released from prison and the house of those in chains, to go forth and reign, should take Jesus in his hands. He should enfold him with his arms and fully grasp him in his bosom. Then he will be able to go in joy where he longs to go…. If you wish to hold Jesus, and to embrace him with your hands, and to be made worthy of leaving prison, you too must struggle with every effort to possess the guiding Spirit. Just come to God’s temple. See, you stand now already in the temple of the Lord Jesus, his Church. This is the temple built from living stones. (Homilies on the Gospel of Luke 15.1–3; FC 94:62-63)
So, not only does Simeon leave in the sense of concluding a covenant with God, and passing out of this world. He is also released from the prison shared by all of humanity—that prison of progressive death and sin. How could this not be the case when God has come in the flesh to be our very salvation? As St. Augustine says, “[Simeon] took the baby body, he cradled the body in his arms. On seeing the body, that is, on perceiving the Lord in the flesh, he said, ‘My eyes have seen your salvation.’ This is…the way in which all flesh is going to see the salvation of God.” (Sermon 277.17, WSA 3 8:44. J. E. Rotelle, ed. Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the Twenty-First Century. Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 1995. And St. Basil says similarly, “Now, it is a custom in Scripture to call the Christ of God, salvation” (Homily on Psalm 61.2: FC 46: 343).
Simeon, then, and now we, by means of the Eucharist, take to ourselves the One who is the very salvation of God—and this is a mystery, as Cyril of Alexandria reminds us, “prepared even before the very foundation of the world but… manifested in the last ages of time.” As the elder puts it, this infant God-Man is both an apocalypse, a revelation for the Gentiles, and the crowning glory of God’s people Israel. St. Cyril goes on to say, “It became a light for those who in darkness and error had fallen under the devil’s hand…. [by] worshiping … the dragon, the author of evil,” and the source of enlightenment for Israel, because there was a remnant who believed: “the first fruits of these were the divine disciples, the brightness of whose renown lightens the whole world” (Cyril of Alexandria. “Homily 4,” Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke. Translated by R. Payne Smith. Studion Publishers, Inc., 1983, 60-61).
This illumination was accomplished by God in the Temple before Simeon and Anna, but also in the presence of all peoples, whether of Israel or from among the nations: remember the shepherds in the fields and the magi from afar? Indeed, this pattern continued as first, believers emerged in Israel, and then in the Gentile nations, as the good news was made known concerning the astounding incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of our LORD. God did not do His mighty acts in a hidden corner, but arranged things so that all would know. Centuries before He had made sure that the written word of God, the Torah, was read before all the Jewish people who returned from exile to worship him (Nehemiah 8:3). And now, it is the Incarnate Word who is showcased, and made known to all. God’s becoming a human being may be a mystery not understood fully by the righteous of the old Covenant, but in God’s own time, it is no longer a secret— not since the time when the infant God-man was presented publicly in the Temple to the elder.
God’s aim is to enlighten the whole world, and to show His will to everyone: this is the very nature of the coming of Emmanuel. What once was obscure has now been declared, has now shone in our world: “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to reveal the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
As we see in God’s dealings with the elder Simeon, He aims to come so close to us that we can hold Him with our arms, and be embraced by his divine arms as well. Our Creator aims to make of us His friends. This we remember each time we stand for the Gospel, or receive the body and blood of the LORD from tongs in the chalice. Those tongs are like those that once held the coal to the prophet Isaiah’s lips, or like the arms of the Theotokos who presented the infant to the elder. We are embraced by holy peace, and look, like Simeon, to the fullness of time when we may be released from a world of sin and death and established in a renewed world where righteousness reigns. Not an escape from the body, but a remaking!